In my discussions with Lutherans, this is one of the major disagreements between us. Yet, how many actually understand exactly what Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin held on the Lord’s Supper, where they agreed, and where they disagreed?
The following is based on my notes from a class on Reformation history.
The Most Controversial Issue of the Early Reformation
The Lord's Supper was the most controversial and most divisive issue in the 16th century. It was the most emotionally charged issue. The reasons why:The issue touched the common people- it wasn’t an abstract issue. The minute you begin to change the worship service and the mass and how it was conducted, the lives of common people are involved . The changing of the actual practice of the Mass became a crucial moment in the beginning of the Reformation.
Common people had been convinced the Mass was at the heart of their salvation. Preaching was less important, while the mass was primary. The Mass took place on a high alter. Two great miracles were held to take place on this altar:
1. Transubstantiation (bread and wine miraculously changed into the body and blood of Christ); the bread and wine were no longer present. The substances change, only the accidens remains (this was an Aristotelian distinction).
2. The second miracle was the sacrifice of Christ. In some sense Christ is sacrificed anew for the turning away of the wraith of God and for the covering of sins.
The bread at times was put on display (as the body of Christ) in a showcase, where people could come and worship Christ.
Taking the elements meant that one was literally receiving the body and blood of Christ, and this made a difference in you: Christ in you, the hope of glory. (They thus, “had a personal relationship with Christ”!).
The Eucharist had been theologically defined at the 4th Lateran council (1215). The council defined 7 sacraments, and transubstantiation. This made it easy for Roman Catholics to respond to the Protestant challenges on the mass: they can point to an ecumenical council’s ruling. The Reformers were much stronger in the area of Justification, where no council had yet ruled.
Because the Reformers held to Sola Scriptura, they found the issue of the Lord’s Supper important because it was instituted by Jesus Christ, and it needed to be understood faithfully and fully, when he said, “this is my body.”
Areas Where All The Reformers Agreed About the Lord’s Supper ( a negative statements of belief against the Roman Catholic Church by the Reformers)
1. Rome had not given enough stress to the importance of faith. In Rome's position, as long as you don’t oppose the grace that works through the sacraments, one can receive grace. This is called “ex opere operato”= “by the work it has been worked”. As long as you don’t resist the grace of God that comes through the sacraments, that grace will be efficacious and productive. The Reformers say a loud “no!” to this. In order to receive the benefits of the sacraments, they held you must receive them by faith. If you don’t come to them with faith, you receive nothing.
2. All the Reformers rejected the concept of a Eucharistic sacrifice. They all held this was a primary error. The Eucharist is not something we offer to God, but God offers to us. We are not doing a good work to please God, but he is offering something to help us.
3. The error of Transubstantiation: what happens on the alter is not a miracle of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Christ in the form of the bread should not be worshipped.
The Positions of Luther and Zwingli on The Lord’s Supper
The Reformers differ due to their different perspectives.
LUTHER: We are saved not by our work but God’s. Our works of righteousness will not save us, but God’s work of righteousness in Christ will. This influences Luther in all his work.
Luther evaluates the medieval teaching on the Lord’s Supper: he sees the central error of Rome as the Eucharistic sacrifice, because it teaches that we offer Christ again to God, and that by our offering God is pleased with us and blesses us. Luther condemns this as works righteousness, and therefore a denial of the gospel.
Luther says we must understand the Lord’s Supper as something God does for us. God in this sacrament gives us a gift: Christ himself. Therefore Christ is present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.” When we receive the elements we literally receive Christ. This isn’t transubstantiation, but an elaboration of what is in the promise of God: it’s better understood as Consubstantiation: the substance of the body of Christ is received with the substance of the bread, which builds us up in faith and commitment to Christ.
Ulrich Zwingli shared similar concerns with Luther on the Lord’s Supper, in that both knew the Roman Catholic concept was in error. Luther’s position was based on a critique of the Eucharistic sacrifice, which he understood to be ultimately works righteousness. This was what Luther thought to be Rome’s key error. Zwingli though saw transubstantiation as the key error of Rome, but agreed with Luther on Rome’s error of works righteousness.
Zwingli’s position against the Roman Catholic Church:
The idea of a repeated sacrifice of the actual Christ was abhorrent to Zwingli. He reasoned, “you couldn’t have a sacrifice of Christ if Christ were not present, therefore the primary error of the Roman Catholic Church is transubstantiation.” Therefore, do away with transubstantiation, because it leads rapidly to idolatry. The error of idolatry is to focus on earthly things, not heavenly things: this was the error of the medieval church, it calls to bread, rather than to Christ, it calls to the alter and the actions of priests, instead of to heaven and the action of Christ. Therefore get rid of the idea that Christ is miraculously called down to the alter and re-sacrificed. Zwingli stressed the ascension of Christ: Christ is risen, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ said he was going to depart, therefore transubstantiation is idolatrous and a violation of the Apostles Creed.
Zwingli’s position on the Lord’s Supper
Zwingli held the Lord’s Supper is a memorial; a pledge of allegiance. What is received in the supper is by faith, therefore let’s exercise our faith: remember Christ and rest in his accomplished work. Through the Lord’s Supper let’s testify to the world that we belong to Him. Zwingli saw the Lord’s Supper as a “wedding ring”: the wedding ring isn’t the marriage itself; it is only a reminder of a relationship that exists.